Blue Marble - February 2007

AAAS Statement on Climate Change Represents 10 Million Scientific Voices

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 8:32 PM EST

Annoyed by pesky climate change naysayers? Wish you had some ready ammunition at hand? Carry a copy of this in your bike bag.

The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Board of Directors released a statement at their annual meeting in San Francisco last weekend on climate change. Founded in 1848, the AAAS is an international non-profit organization serving some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, and 10 million individuals. Its journal Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. In other words, this is the real deal, people, as close to the Science Bible as it gets.

The text of the AAAS statement on climate change reads as follows:

The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, a critical greenhouse gas, is higher than it has been for at least 650,000 years. The average temperature of the Earth is heading for levels not experienced for millions of years. Scientific predictions of the impacts of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and deforestation match observed changes. As expected, intensification of droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires, and severe storms is occurring, with a mounting toll on vulnerable ecosystems and societies. These events are early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible.

Delaying action to address climate change will increase the environmental and societal consequences as well as the costs. The longer we wait to tackle climate change, the harder and more expensive the task will be.

History provides many examples of society confronting grave threats by mobilizing knowledge and promoting innovation. We need an aggressive research, development and deployment effort to transform the existing and future energy systems of the world away from technologies that emit greenhouse gases. Developing clean energy technologies will provide economic opportunities and ensure future energy supplies.

In addition to rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is essential that we develop strategies to adapt to ongoing changes and make communities more resilient to future changes.

The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: we are already experiencing global climate change. It is time to muster the political will for concerted action. Stronger leadership at all levels is needed. The time is now. We must rise to the challenge. We owe this to future generations.

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Boys Will Be Boys, Even if They're Depressed

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 5:45 PM EST

This week's Newsweek features a story on men and depression. It's a confusing story because women have long been known to suffer depression at twice the rates men do, and though the tone of the article is meant to suggest that scientists are finding increasing rates of depression in men, no such statistic is ever offered.

This could be a great story if it focused on how a few men actually experience depression, and what that means in our guy-centric go-get-'em culture. But, after a brief and superficial discussion of a state senator suffering from depression, the story goes on to reassure the reader that men suffer from depression in those same stereotypically male ways in which the media insists they do everything else. Here's Newsweek "discovering" its own mainstream biases in science:

In a confessional culture in which Americans are increasingly obsessed with their health, it may seem clichéd—men are from Mars, women from Venus, and all that—to say that men tend not to take care of themselves and are reluctant to own up to mental illness. But the facts suggest that, well, men tend not to take care of themselves and are reluctant to own up to mental illness.

In fact, even being mentally ill can't make American men act less like men:

Instead of talking about their feelings, men may mask them with alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, anger or by becoming workaholics. And even when they do realize they have a problem, men often view asking for help as an admission of weakness, a betrayal of their male identities.

Is this stuff for real? What about the possibility that working too much and drinking too much cause depression? This is Logic 101. Haven't scientists and science reporters learned that when you stumble upon your preconceptions, maybe it's because they are right where you left them? Here's another gem of the surprising-yourself-in-the-mirror variety:

If modern psychologists were slow to understand how men's emotions affect their behaviors, it's only because their predecessors long ago decided that having a uterus was the main risk factor for mental illness.

Or, it could be that because a disproportionate number of scientists are men, they didn't want to learn that men had feelings, too. This is the single best reason for ensuring that minorities and women are represented in all fields.

So what should we do about this new epidemic? You guessed it: First, we should suddenly take depression seriously, and call it a genuine illness instead of just some mopey bullshit your wife pulls on you. Second, we should empathize with men when they get in to bar fights and yell at their wives, because, it turns out these are symptoms of male depression! (The disease behaves entirely differently in women: Weeping women are depressed; irritable women are just bitches!) Seriously:

Depressed women often weep and talk about feeling bad; depressed men are more likely to get into bar fights, scream at their wives, have affairs or become enraged by small inconveniences like lousy service at a restaurant.

Your husband cheated on you? Give the guy a break; he's depressed! Rageaholic? Poor baby! Rather than taking the example that men also suffer from depression to indicate that perhaps our gendered expectations of them—success at all costs! Don't talk about your feelings, you girl!—may be misplaced, the article takes the opportunity to reaffirm that even depressed guys can be part of the rat race. All of the men profiled in the article are successful guys who, after taking some time off and getting medicated, go right back to their successful jobs. What hard lives they lead! It's perfect, really, because it gives us an excuse not to look more deeply into the reasons why women and some minorities are more likely to be depressed.

Is There DDT in your Omega-3s?

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 4:19 PM EST

A new study commissioned by Greenpeace [PDF] found that that OmegaPure brand omega-3 fish oil supplements contains high levels of DDT, the pesticide Dieldrin, and PCBs. Yikes. That's bad news for consumers of OmegaPure, which is made by Omega Protein, North America's biggest fish-oil producer. But as we've already reported, DDT and PCBs aren't the only reasons thoughtful consumers might want to skip OmegaPure. First of all, it's made from menhaden, an ecologically crucial fish that's in danger of being wiped out by Omega's fishery. And if you still need a fatty acid fix, there are other, less destructive options out there. Which is not to say that other fish-oil products don't contain some of the nasty stuff apparently in menhaden oil. I suspect that there's no longer such a thing as a contaminant-free fish oil.

John Schellnhuber's Third Industrial Revolution, a New Approach to Addressing the Hazards of Global Warming

| Mon Feb. 19, 2007 3:22 PM EST

One of the topical lectures offered at this year's annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), wrapping today in San Francisco, sees John Schellnhuber expanding on his 12 global warming tipping points (Mother Jones Nov/Dec 2006).

Schellnhuber's impeccable credentials (founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, James Martin Fellow at Oxford University, Chief Government Adviser on climate for the German G8 and European Union twin presidency in 2007) underscore his brilliant and impassioned message: we need a Third Industrial Revolution to achieve a sustainable future on planet Earth.

"We've lost almost a decade in my field debating the climate change models," he says. There's no time to waste. He describes the "2-degree guardrail" (3.6 degrees F). If we can keep global warming at or below 2 degrees C, we may prevent the 12 tipping points from tipping. Whereas even minute increases above 2-degree C are likely to initiate cascades of catastrophe impossible to reverse.

The only way to hold to the 2-degree line is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Currently the world is still accelerating its production of greenhouse emissions. You do the math.

"Eternity," says Schellnhuber, "lasts a very long time, especially towards the end."

He shows an animation of the 12 tipping points tipping each other one after another and then swirling around in a vortex of chaos. "I can stop it," he says, "but only in virtual reality."

To stop it in reality, he argues we must induce innovation. "People think innovation is manna from heaven and will simply happen," he says. Not true—though we know what's encouraged it in the past. "World War II was the biggest inducer of innovation on this planet," he says, and an example of how we need to pour our collective resources into a new war, a new fight for our survival.

Nicholas Stern's report to the British government said that the only way to hold the 2-degree C line is to induce innovation. Meanwhile, says Schellnhuber, the past two decades have seen a dramatic decline in research and development in energy, exactly the reverse of what's needed.

We need to reinvent the way we live on the land and in cities, Schellnhuber says—including breaking the urbanization mold. Our cities have been built to maximize automobile traffic. But urban life as we know it is not sustainable: it's nonadaptive to global warming, as well as being a major contributor to global warming.

As for security, Schellnhuber refers to a global analysis of a future where the tipping points have already tipped. The results are wars, civil wars, and an overall "climate of violence."

As for the solution, "it's the portfolio, stupid." We need to mix it up with all the renewables—hydrothermal, wind, solar, biofuels—with solar being our best bet since it's evenly distributed across the spectrum of rich and poor nations, thereby minimizing the tendency to horde with all its geopolitical consequences. The European Union is already talking about linking a renewable energy grid across the continent.

Schellnhuber's PowerPoint presentation and lecture should be required listening for all presidents, prime ministers, members of congresses and parliaments, CEOs, CFOs, state legislatures, middle and high school students, parents and prospective parents.

On the average-joe level, why not include its message in driver's ed? We're taught the dangers of drunk driving and other forms of recklessness. Why not the hazards of our own fossil-fuel consumption? It's arguably more dangerous to more of us that we'll never meet than any other activity we engage in. Why not start the Third Industrial Revolution with a question on the driving exam: "What's the single biggest thing you can do behind the wheel to save the lives of your children and grandchildren not even in the car?"

Air Conditioning Heats Your World

| Fri Feb. 16, 2007 9:05 PM EST

Our cool addiction is making it hotter. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports on a study by Dr Yukitaka Ohashi of Okayama University of Science and colleagues in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology reporting that air conditioners make it hotter outside and how they do it.

Their study compared the summer temperatures in downtown Tokyo on weekends versus weekdays. It showed air conditioners dump enough heat into the streets to raise the temperature at least 1 to 2ºC [1.8 to 3.6 degrees F]. In turn, heat blasting from the rear-ends of air conditioners is contributing to the "heat island" effect that makes cities hotter and their weather sometimes more severe.

Air conditioners remove not only ambient heat from buildings, but they expel heat from their use of electricity. In other words, coolers don't just move heat from the inside to the outdoors, they also add new heat just by being machines that consume power. In fact, Tokyo sucks up about 1.6 gigawatts of electricity for every 2 degrees of warming on a hot summer day, the researchers says. That's equivalent to the output of one-and-a-half nuclear power plants.

If we want to get serious about local warming as well as global warming can we agree to open the doors? I mean, does anyone keep their house or apartment as frigid as the average mini-mart, restaurant, or mall store? Can we imagine adding thermostat control to our list of consumer demands… we already (don't we?) ask for sustainably-caught seafood and sustainably-harvested wood and forest products? Why not ask to open the doors and cool the world?

US-based urban heat researcher Dr Stuart Gaffin of the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University in New York suspects the Japanese researchers are right about the significant contribution of air conditioning to hotter cities. "Such heat is not fully appreciated in urban heat island discussions," says Gaffin. The heat islands created by big cities in warm climates like Atlanta or Dallas - have been recognised as having noticeable and sometimes violent effects on stormy weather that crosses their path. Even non-urban areas downwind of cities have been known to get more violent thunder storms as a result of the supercharging of storms by city heat.

Either we get bitchy about it or Mother Nature will. And she's queen bitch.

A Science PhD Who's Also a Creationist?

Fri Feb. 16, 2007 5:51 PM EST

Science blogs have been buzzing about Marcus Ross, a geosciences PhD who's also a creationist. The controversy: Should the University of Rhode Island have granted Ross a PhD for his scientific work, even though he also believes the Bible's account of the earth's origin is literally true?

I say: sure.

The PhD process is not a referendum on your political, moral, religious beliefs -- it's a measure of your scientific work. And according to Ross' dissertation advisor, his scientific work on marine mammals (which didn't challenge the theory of evolution) was "impeccable." Assuming that's really the case, there's no reason to deny him a degree. Science isn't about individual researchers' personalities or their personal beliefs -- it's about the continual advancement of a body of knowledge through testing hypotheses and peer review. Like Scott Aaronson says, the great thing about science is that unlike religious fundamentalism, it doesn't "need loyalty oaths in order to function. We don't need to peer into people's souls to see if they truly believe."

Some are worried that he'll just take his PhD and use it as a credential to push intelligent design. (Actually, he's already doing that. Check out his DVD, put out by a Colorado Springs-based intelligent design organization.) But what one plans to do with a degree isn't the concern of a PhD committee. Plus, on a practical front, it looks like he's already limiting his message to fundamentalists -- his first gig as professor is at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, where job biology job announcements say: "compatibility with a young-earth creationist philosophy required."

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Al Gore Teams With Snoop Dogg to Fight Global Warming

| Fri Feb. 16, 2007 2:09 PM EST

Al Gore's anti-global warming/entertainment juggernaut continues. Gore, in conjunction with the Microsoft Network, just announced Live Earth, a series of Live 8-style worldwide concerts on July 7. Proceeds will go to found "a new, multi-year global effort to combat the climate crisis." (Yeah, but only after Ticket Master gets its cut.) The lineup includes Pharrell, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Snoop Dogg, Lenny Kravitz, and Bon Jovi, to name a few. (No word on enviropunks Green Day yet, but Snow Patrol will also be rockin' to protect the glaciers.) And before you shell out for tix, get up to speed with our recent coverage of climate change.

Climate Change Nightmares

| Thu Feb. 15, 2007 9:24 PM EST

Check out the television ad is airing in world capitals.

44,000 have signed the petition so far. They're aiming for 100,000.

Global Warming Vintage 1958

| Thu Feb. 15, 2007 8:54 PM EST

Who says we haven't known about global warming until Al Gore? Check out this 1958 Frank Capra short.

Does it Matter if BP Sleeps With UC Berkeley and Californians Fund Their Hotel Room?

| Thu Feb. 15, 2007 7:48 PM EST, website of the British science journal Nature, reports on growing concerns about oil-giant BP's $50-million energy research partnership with the University of California Berkeley. On February 1, BP announced it will fund a decade of alternative-energy research by Berkeley and its partners, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign —fueling worries about the affair.

Some fear that the pact — for which final details are still being worked out — could be a repeat of a controversial $25-million contract that the university entered into in 1998 with the biotech giant Novartis. That deal expired in 2003, amid criticism that the academic freedom of some university researchers had been compromised.

It's not uncommon for industry to fund academic research. It is unusual for funders to shack up with researchers—a cozy arrangement California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes to promote by asking the state for $40 million in bonds to pay for the Energy Biosciences Institute, where BP-funded researchers would work.

The building would house university professors and students, along with perhaps 50 industry scientists. Industry funds a lot of research on public and private university campuses, and it's fairly common for companies to have labs located near institutes where industry and academic researchers work together — as Intel and Yahoo do at Berkeley, for example. But it's rare for industry to house its scientists in public buildings on state university property.

The ménage-a-trois between government, industry and academia disturbs Berkeley entomologist Miguel Altieri, who fears the deal is another step in the

"rapid, unchecked and unprecedented global corporate alignment of the world's largest agribusiness, biotech, petroleum and automotive industries". He fears that for "a relatively small investment", BP can benefit from public resources and cash in on inventions developed with taxpayers' money.

More controversial still is the bidding non-war that led to Berkeley's win, says Nature.

The BP competition occurred alongside a volatile political campaign in California to create a $4-billion public research programme into alternative energy sources, funded via a severance tax on oil firms. Energy companies spent $108 million on advertisements against the measure, Proposition 87, on last November's ballot. Schwarzenegger refused to back Proposition 87, and critics are upset that, instead, he is supporting a deal that they see as enabling one of those energy companies to benefit from public facilities. Schwarzenegger argues that the BP deal fits California's plans for developing cleaner energy in an economical manner.

The losing bidders were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, San Diego; Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, UK. Imperial's rector Richard Sykes notes that his university had costed its bid so no public funds would be used. He says BP told Imperial that its bid wasn't economical. "We thought that was interesting," he comments.